I’ve spent the last year and a half working as a balance designer on Company of Heroes 2 at Relic Entertainment. My job has focused specifically on balancing the multiplayer experience; including, tuning, iterating, and designing core gameplay features and mechanics. I want to take the opportunity to share some of my experiences as a balance designer, as an exercise of self reflection and in an effort to share knowledge and experiences. Information found below contains both my own experiences and lessons as well as knowledge gathered from others through research and mentorship.
What is balance?
I have come across a number of interesting definitions of balance which all seem to boil down into the same essence. Balance is the equilibrium of meaningful choice, which translate into a fair game. Keith Burgun (100 Rogues) provides a great visualization of this concept in The Art of Strategy (skip to the 18:00 min mark) by contrasting the concept of a solution and a guess to highlight the essence of a decision. A solution is an easily identifying course of action, like putting a square peg into a square hole. A guess is an arbitrary action by the player with no obtainable answer; i.e. choose between two random and unknown paths. A decision is located in between a solution and guess.
How does this break down? In the players mind, there is no clear advantage of doing one thing over the other. The player must carefully weigh the impact of the decision relative to all other available decisions. Let us suppose you are the weapon designer on the next rendition of Battlefield, as part of your job you are tasked with creating 8 unique submachine guns. Balance is achieved if the player cannot clearly identify the best weapon. Ideally, each weapon would have strengths and weaknesses given the circumstances of its use.
The user has a number of equally appealing choices and the equality of choice creates a fair playing field since the players choice was weighed against similar choices by other players. In the Battlefield example given above, Player A might be good in close quarters but suffers at range; whereas, Player B is good at range but poor in close quarters. Player B understands the impact of his decision in relation to Player A’s decision. Therefore, if Player B dies in close quarter combat he can relate his defeat to the decisions he made. A good test of balance in this scenario is asking whether Player B would maintain his previous decision or would he defer to another choice. Ideally, your data will show a diversity in player choice; with no single choice outweighing others.
Just a quick note on the last paragraph, being able to relate one’s decision against others significantly impacts the players perception of the game. Players need to understand their decision relative to others, this is often achieved to varying degrees of transparency. Failing this, they will often begin to develop a skewed perception which may result in undesirable responses. This is a topic of its own, so I will leave it at that.
Why is it important?
Keith Burgun says it best, “gameplay is all about making choices and in a poorly-balanced game, many of the choices available to the player are essentially rendered useless.” (Understanding Balance in Video Games) If you make eight weapons and only two of them are viable then you really only offered the player two options when you intended to offer them eight. I have found that poor balance often results in repetitive gameplay because as a player I am constantly making the same decisions. The degree of variation I might have experienced from play through to play through begins to diminish, causing me to lose interest. Why? Because repetition is the cancer of games.
From a business point of view, if the product lacks balance it will reduce your acquisition and retention. No one wants to play an unfair game because one player wins and the other loses. The player who keeps winning will eventually get bored due to a lack of challenge, the player who keeps losing will eventually get frustrated. Both cases result in retention dropping, there does seem to be a strong correlation between balance and retention from the data I have reviewed.